It’s unfortunate that as NASCAR heads to Thunder Valley this weekend, site of races marked by Demolition Derby-type fireworks, tempers, and verbal jabs the one sound haunting the sport these days is marked by exactly the opposite.
That’s the modus operandi for Tony Stewart, missing in action since a brief official statement Sunday, August 9th expressing remorse for the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. It was a tragedy caused officially by blunt force trauma, coming straight from the right rear tire of a sprint car Stewart was driving out on the dirt tracks of Canandaigua. The moment, seen on YouTube by millions is something no one who cares about the sport, who’s seen it in any way, shape or form can quite escape regardless of if, or where they place the blame. Yes, time has passed, getting NASCAR Nation past the shock phase but no one directly or indirectly connected has been the same ever since.
The news cycle, with Stewart’s decision to disappear – he’s up to three missed Cup races now – keeps making national headlines well beyond the gates of the stock car racing community. As recently as late last week, the Dan Patrick Show was stirring up trouble, claiming Stewart’s sub Jeff Burton couldn’t appear on their national program because NASCAR was coaching Burton on what to say in a press conference. Non-racing outlets, with large audiences from Nancy Grace to MSNBC continue to be fascinated. Let’s put it this way: TMZ Sports didn’t exactly go nuts about Carl Edwards signing with Joe Gibbs Racing or Arris deciding to take a flyer on Sprint Cup.
There are reasons, obvious ones why Stewart’s gone MIA. The most important is the human side: the man is grieving, hit hard by the knowledge he’s killed someone else. Unintentional, a horrible accident or something more that fact will never escape Stewart’s mind the rest of his life, the cruelest type of punishment to impose. Any rational person would need time, in virtual hibernation to wrap their head around ending the life of a 20-year-old. No wonder why so many texts and calls, from friends inside the NASCAR garage have gone unreturned, although the school of thought is there’s a few more conversations happening than Stewart’s inner circle is letting on.
Lawyers are also prepping their entrance onto the public stage. Any word Stewart speaks could potentially be used against him as part of a criminal investigation; as long as that continues, and upstate New York shows no sign of doing a “rush job” on sorting through the facts any type of public statement just won’t happen. If no criminal charges are filed, a civil lawsuit appears a near-certainty, the Ward family openly questioning Stewart’s actions while going through the stages of grief. Smoke would be silly not to follow legal advice, which means staying quiet until the next chapter of this story begins to unfold. The ball is not in his court.
So Stewart sits, then knowing the first time he steps foot inside the NASCAR garage will cause a mini-circus. People who have little knowledge of Stewart other than he’s a racer that hit another man on the racetrack will chronicle every step, with great care. Questions will be flown, regardless of whether they can get answered toward a man that even on his good days had a tempestuous relationship with the media. No return to the track can happen until he can muster the words “no comment” and be able to shut the hauler door after practice without losing control – let alone his ability to focus over a 500-mile race.
All these factors make it clear that for now, silence is the best option. But for so many in this modern world of instant gratification the patience associated with the wait is unacceptable. Someone needs to grieve on our timetable, answer on our timetable, be held accountable on our timetable regardless of the words “due process” or whether it’s anybody’s business. So the verbal sparring over both sides of the Tony Stewart issue continues, unabated. Fans are starting a grassroots movement to stand up on Lap 14 Saturday night, supporting their favorite driver in their time of need. There’s a secondary group looking to stand up on Lap 13, supporting Kevin Ward while still others will look towards the fans standing at Stewart and shout, “Murderer.”
Every person in NASCAR, associated in any way with the sport has been asked about the Stewart incident. Have you spoke to him? How is he? What’s your opinion? Rules have been changed, almost instantly designed to protect drivers involved in on-track incidents. Burton, along with most others working at Stewart-Haas Racing have been grilled about the mood at the shop, the goals while their fearless leader is gone, to the point of media exhaustion.
It’s those employees, the ones who did nothing wrong where the silence/absence of their fearless leader hurts the most. In the short-term, adrenaline kicks in, as Competition Director Greg Zipadelli is highlycapable of steering the ship. But as we saw last season, in the case of Stewart’s broken leg no one person can fill the void of Stewart’s steady leadership. In an expansion year, with four cars each at wildly different stages of development the house of cards can fight against the wind for only so long.
What’s next? For them, the answer is uncomfortable silence because no one really knows. They join the legion of fans, drivers, and all those associated with this incident, stuck in some kind of awkward no man’s land while others who have no business commenting fill it with speculative answers. The truth is, everyone’s walking on uncharted territory here. All we can do is watch, wait, and respect those directly involved as they deal with it all.
But for too many, these days what sounds so simple is easier said than done.